On the drive south, and again on the return journey, my family charted a course through the Shenandoah Valley to visit with my daughter, Rachel.
Originally, the plan had been to pick up Rachel on the way down and return her on the way back, as is our annual custom. We were particularly keen for her to join us this year, for she is at an age—seventeen—which may offer one of her last flexible summers before her life is wrapped up in boyfriends, jobs and college.
Alas, Rachel has always been precocious. She already had too much on her plate to manage a three-week excursion to the Deep South.
Last spring, she graduated high school a year early, leaving her with a few divergent options. Should she stay at home and work for a year, to save money? Should she fulfill our shared fantasy and join me in New York?
She wondered: should she pursue college admissions in her home state, and live near her mom and dad, or in New York, to live with her dad, or maybe in California, near her other dad?
And if she did move, what would that mean to her ten younger siblings?
Rachel’s family ties are complex, perhaps a fact of life when a girl has three fathers.
Rachel’s mother Emily and I were never formally in a relationship. The conception of our daughter was due to a certain convergence of coincidences.
The winter of nineteen-eighty-seven was unusually snowy. Because of this, classes were canceled at my college, and I found myself one night drinking at the bar tended by my roommate, Jetboy.
I had long blond hair. Because of this, Emily felt compelled to braid my hair as I sat at the bar.
While I didn’t know Emily very well, I did like her physical resemblance to Molly Ringwald. I also liked that she was so fond of my hair. It felt nice to have her touch it.
When Jetboy returned to our apartment that night, he walked in on Emily and me having sex.
He would get accustomed to the sight.
For the rest of that winter and into the spring, Emily and I fucked and fucked.
She would hang out with her friends at the dorm, smoking pot and listening to bootlegged cassettes of Grateful Dead concerts. When she was good and baked, she would call me and ask to come over.
I always said yes.
Emily and I each had a “real” relationship back home. Our nights together provided a salutary opportunity for sex while we were at school.
Jetboy didn’t mind at all. He thought it was cool that we went at it regardless of his presence, though he declined our occasional entreaties to join us.
As the academic year drew to a close, Emily and I prepared to return to our lives back home. I happened to be at the dorm when her boyfriend arrived to help her move. I shook his hand and helped Emily load her things into his pickup truck.
She waved goodbye and smiled as they drove away. I waved and smiled in return.
In July, I heard through the grapevine that Emily was two months pregnant.
I counted backwards.
I called her.
Emily confirmed that yes, she was pregnant and yes, the child was mine. But her boyfriend assumed it was his, and she preferred to keep it that way.
She said she would not be back in school for the coming year.
Emily was nineteen. I was twenty two.
I had made an erroneous assumption. My real girlfriend Pablo and I relied on her birth control pills. I assumed that any woman who didn’t insist on condoms was on the pill. Emily seemed unconcerned about birth control, so I figured she was all set.
Turns out she wasn’t on the pill. Turns out she was opposed to birth control. Abortion too, for that matter.
So she was going to have my baby and raise it with her boyfriend.
I might never meet my child.
Needless to say, I was a little distracted as I began my senior year. I had a very big secret to keep.
When I returned home for Christmas break, my family was poised for a great milestone: my brother Jesse and his wife Teri were expecting their first child.
My parents, then in their mid forties, were about to become grandparents.
Just before New Year’s Day, I was with my family in a hospital waiting room when Jesse came out, his eyes tearing, to announce the birth of my nephew Tracy.
I hugged him, crying.
A week later, in a hospital in rural Virginia, my daughter was born. Emily named her Rachel Ann.
No one in my family knew. Very few friends knew.
I called Emily every few days to check on her and to listen to our baby gurgle and cry.
A few months later, after graduation, I began to date Lucy.
One summer night, as we lay in bed nude, sweating under a fan, listening to Wire, I told Lucy I had some things to confess.
First, I’m bisexual.
Second, I have a daughter I’ve never met.
I knew that her mother and brother were gay, and that her father had left the family when Lucy was four. I tried to joke that by being a queer absent father, I was either perfect for her, or the worst possible match.
She held my hand.
“You are not bisexual if you are with me,” she said into the night. “And you have to meet your daughter.”
She convinced me.
I went to Virginia to meet my six-month-old baby girl.
Rachel had blue eyes like her mother and me. She had wispy blonde hair. She had her mother’s soft open mouth.
I held her, scared and nervous.
I kissed them both goodbye at four that afternoon. I had to be out of the house when Rachel’s real father returned from work.
I told Lucy how amazing it had been to hold my daughter.
“I’m sure,” she said. “When will you see her again?”
I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, I should see her again.
I invited Emily to bring the baby to visit me. She agreed, and I drove out to pick them up.
By this time, Rachel was walking.
I wasn’t ready for Lucy to meet Emily and Rachel. That was just too weird, I thought.
“I can wait,” Lucy said. “But will you be sleeping with Emily?”
“We haven’t had sex in over a year,” I said. “But what difference would it make if we did?”
“It will make a difference to me,” she said.
I agreed that my sexual relationship with Emily was over.
For a weekend, Emily and I took care of Rachel. Our baby toddled around my room, knocking down books and chewing on album covers. She slept between us at night.
Rachel is blurry in every photograph from that weekend, unless she was sleeping.
In time, Lucy would meet Emily and Rachel. We traveled out to see them fairly often, always when her boyfriend was away. I took photographs of my beautiful baby, her beautiful mom, and my beautiful girlfriend, smiling, playing, enjoying one another.
This works, I thought. I can’t believe it, but it works.
One day Emily called to say she was leaving her boyfriend. She was in love with someone else, a guy I had never met named Phil.
They were taking Rachel and driving to San Francisco the next day.
I tried to talk her out of doing anything rash.
I realized I had absolutely no say in the matter. Emily could do whatever she wanted with our daughter.
Lucy convinced Emily to talk with a friend of ours, a family lawyer who would at least offer some advice. Emily agreed.
She took only one part of our friend’s advice. She left a note for her boyfriend saying she was gone for good, and she was taking the baby.
The baby, she added, is not yours.
With that, she was gone.
A few months later, Lucy and I flew to San Francisco. We visited their tiny apartment in the shadow of a freeway overpass. We took Rachel to the Presidio and the zoo.
Emily was pregnant. She seemed very happy.
At Christmas, she received a summons.
Her ex-boyfriend was suing for custody of Rachel.
Emily and the baby were to appear in court in Virginia, in a small town where the ex-boyfriend’s father was a leading figure.
Of course, Lucy and I drove down for the hearings.
When the ex-boyfriend and his family arrived at court for the first hearing, they saw me with Emily. I was holding Rachel.
His mother blanched. Rachel was a carbon copy of me.
The ex boyfriend had promised to be civil in these proceedings. He was a sweet guy, and he had my sympathy: his child had been taken away. But I also knew that if he had custody, my tenuous relationship with Rachel would be severed. He had no reason to keep me around as another father.
Emily had a court appointed lawyer who seemed unfamiliar with her case.
His lawyer stood to say that Emily was a pot dealer and devotee of the Grateful Dead. She represented a flight risk as she had already left for San Francisco; furthermore, she was obliged to follow the Grateful Dead to all concerts.
This was pure fabrication. Emily didn’t follow Dead shows. And her ex boyfriend was the pot dealer.
No matter. The judge concurred with his argument, and ruled that while the case was being decided, Rachel was better off with her father and his family, community members of good standing.
Rachel was taken from Emily’s arms and placed in those of her ex-boyfriend’s mother.
Lucy and I were shocked. Our friend the family lawyer had told us that babies generally remain with the mother during a custody battle unless there was a clear danger to the child.
Outside the courthouse, Lucy took Emily by the shoulders. Both were crying.
“Listen to me, Emily. Listen to me!” she said, looking to her eyes. “I am calling my family. We are paying for you to have a real lawyer. You are not losing Rachel. Do you hear me?”
Emily nodded, too stunned to do otherwise.
Lucy called her family. Lucy called lawyers. Lucy wrote checks.
I signed affidavits asserting my paternity. I offered myself for blood tests. I initiated my long relationship with the sovereign government of the State of Virginia.
When the judge issued a final ruling, Rachel stayed with Emily.
That summer, Lucy sat with me as I told my parents I had “important news.” I held Lucy’s hands in my lap.
I was with my girlfriend, but we looked somber. This was clearly not an announcement of our engagement.
My friend Donnie had already been diagnosed with AIDS.
Mom looked as if she might cry.
“I’m sorry I have taken so long to tell you this,” I said, swallowing hard. “But you have another grandchild.”
Dad looked confused. Mom suddenly smiled.
“You and Lucy are expecting?” she asked.
Lucy and I stumbled over one another to tell the story.
That night, the four of us were in a car driving toward Rachel.
As I made introductions, my parents shook hands with Phil. They rubbed Emily’s bulging belly.
And they fell in love with their granddaughter.
In time, Emily and her ex-boyfriend made peace. He remained a part of Rachel’s life. She refers to him as her “other dad.”
Emily and Phil got married. They traveled around for a while, then settled down in Virginia.
They had seven children after Rachel, each pregnancy unplanned but welcome. Rachel helped to deliver each of her siblings.
Emily and I settled into a kind of fraternal relationship. I love her like a sister. We agree on very few things: my Deadhead hippy fuck buddy became a born-again fundamentalist who home schools her kids and insists that they attend rallies against gay marriage.
Whatever. We’re family.
My parents and children mingled with Rachel’s full family this summer. My kids played with Rachel’s other siblings, riding skateboards, chasing her dog, and holding the baby.
There were too few moments for Rachel and I to be alone, but we drank those moments in great gulps.
For now, Rachel has decided to wait about leaving her hometown. She loves New York, she told me, but this is home.
She enrolled in a community college.
She continues to work as a waitress at a cool café.
And she got her own place. She lives in a cabin with a fireplace, a pool and a big Jacuzzi tub. Her Beatles memorabilia lines the walls.
She pays for school and her cabin with the money she earns.
Her brothers and sisters take turns sleeping over—when she wants company.
My parents and I took her to Wal-Mart to help fix up her place. She asked me for a Bodum coffee carafe like mine.
Shortly after I returned to New York, I received a card from my daughter.
It was so great to see you and everybody last week. I am writing this on my patio with some great coffee—thanks!
I’m so sorry I couldn’t go south this year. When can I come up to New York? Maybe for my eighteenth birthday. Then we can smoke cigarettes and watch porn—you know, the usual, but now it will be legal.
I love you Dad. Call me!
PS When is my boyfriend Marcus coming to New York? Maybe at my birthday? I know you think he is yours, but he is mine. Ha ha!